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3 Orange County commission incumbents face challenges

Orlando Sentinel logoOrlando Sentinel 7/31/2020 By Stephen Hudak, Orlando Sentinel
a group of people in a room: A voter casts his ballot at the Orange County Supervisor of Elections office in Orlando, Fla., Tuesday, March 17, 2020, in the Florida primary. Democratic voters are making their choice for their party's nominee in the 2020 presidential election. © Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/Orlando Sentinel/TNS A voter casts his ballot at the Orange County Supervisor of Elections office in Orlando, Fla., Tuesday, March 17, 2020, in the Florida primary. Democratic voters are making their choice for their party's nominee in the 2020 presidential election.

Three incumbent Orange County commissioners, part of the first-ever all-female board, face re-election challengers on the Aug. 18 ballot.

In District 3, former commissioner Pete Clarke is vying to reclaim the seat he once held against his successor, Mayra Uribe, and retired Orlando police officer Bill Moore, making his third run for the job.

With multiple candidates in each commission race, the seats may not be settled until November. Run-offs will be held on the general election ballot for any races in which no candidate receives at least half of the primary ballot vote.

Unlike elections for president, Congress and the county’s constitutional officers, county commission races have been nonpartisan in Orange County since 1992, meaning party affiliation won’t appear on the ballot beside the candidate’s name.

a person wearing a blue dress standing next to a forest: SONY DSC\r\rUser Upload Caption: Emily Bonilla, candidate for Orange County Commission District 5 © Stephen Hudak / Orlando Sentinel/Orlando Sentinel/TNS SONY DSC\r\rUser Upload Caption: Emily Bonilla, candidate for Orange County Commission District 5

Commissioners are paid $84,688.29 a year.

District 1

Until recently, the race for the District 1 seat seemed likely to pivot around incumbent Commissioner Betsy VanderLey’s vote endorsing the Central Florida Expressway Authority’s preferred route for a toll-road extension through a piece of Split Oak Forest.

a man wearing a suit and tie: Pete Clarke, candidate for Orange County District 3 commissioner. © Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda / Orlando Sentinel/Orlando Sentinel/TNS Pete Clarke, candidate for Orange County District 3 commissioner.

VanderLey, 61, said she decided CFX’s preference was the best option for Orange County because it would allow the agency to build a safer highway with fewer tight curves and transfer 1,500 acres from developers into conservation to make up for the encroachment.

Challenger Nicole Wilson, 49, an environmental-law attorney, said the vote — which she viewed as breaking a promise county leaders made 25 years ago to protect the Split Oak Forest forever — convinced her to run.

But recent revelations, first reported by the Orlando Sentinel, have shifted the focus in the race.

The newspaper reported VanderLey failed to disclose on state- and county-mandated paperwork that she received thousands of dollars of income through her consulting business from DRMP, a Central Florida engineering firm which holds contracts with both the county and the Expressway Authority. VanderLey serves as Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings’ appointee on the CFX board.

VanderLey, who described the oversight as a “clerical error” which she has since corrected, said she has worked hard as a commissioner to be transparent.

But Wilson said the issue illustrates the cozy relationship between VanderLey and developers.

The Split Oak vote isn’t the only issue where the two candidates differ. Last year, VanderLey voted to give up to $125 million of county money to Universal Orlando to help pay for a road that will service the resort’s new theme park. Wilson said she would have voted against the road deal, which passed by a 4-3 vote, despite public opposition.

The race also includes a write-in candidate, Hannah Burns, whose name won’t appear on the ballot. She is the stepdaughter of former commissioner Scott Boyd, who supports VanderLey.

The west Orange district includes the Disney area, Horizon West, Oakland, Windermere and Winter Garden.

District 3

A first-generation American, the bi-lingual Uribe, 46, said she has helped district residents in ways Clarke and Moore can’t.

In March, when county leaders started holding public press briefings about the coronavirus pandemic, she and fellow commissioner Maribel Gomez Cordero insisted information also be provided live in Spanish, and she was often available to translate.

She also lobbied health officials to make COVID-19 testing available in the 40% Hispanic district when infections flared in the community. At the time, the closest testing site was seven miles away.

Clarke, who served 17 years as deputy director of the county’s Health and Family Services, said he would have “camped on the mayor’s doorstep” to bring COVID testing to the district sooner. He and Uribe support Mayor Jerry Demings’ face-mask mandate.

Uribe said she also would support issuing fines if necessary for compliance with that order. Clarke and Moore would not.

“It would be adding insult to injury,” said Moore, 49.

Clarke, 71, served from 2012 to 2018 as District 3 commissioner but was required by law to give up the office with two years left on his second term when he decided to run for Orange County mayor. He finished a distant second to Demings in the three-person race.

He said he improved district parks and raised awareness about human trafficking during his six years on the board.

Clarke said he would have opposed the Expressway Authority’s proposed use of Split Oak Forest for a toll road, which Uribe supported.

Moore who mostly has self-funded his campaign, shrugged off the funding advantage of his opponents. He said both his rivals have raised thousands from hoteliers and developers in this race or others.

“On the other hand, I have no strings attached,” he said.

The district includes the communities of Azalea Park, Belle Isle, Conway, Edgewood and Pine Castle.

District 5

Mike Miller, a former state representative, and business owner Anjali Vaya are challenging the re-election bid of incumbent Emily Bonilla to represent the east Orange district which includes Baldwin Park, Bithlo, Christmas, Maitland and Winter Park.

Bonilla, 43, upset long-time incumbent Ted Edwards four years ago.

She ran for office because she disagreed with Edwards’ support for two mega-developments in the district’s rural area.

Bonilla, who worked as career advisor at Full Sail University, has been on the losing side of some closely watched commission decisions, including Split Oak and the Universal road deal. She also could not persuade the board to put a rent freeze referendum on the November ballot.

“You need more politicians like me who are going to stand up for what’s right rather than who’s giving them a campaign donation,” she said. “Until we have more people like that running our government, nothing’s going to get better for the actual people who struggle every day to pay their rent, working three jobs to get food on their table [and] make sure their kids are fed.”

Miller, 52, who served two terms in the Florida House representing part of the same territory that makes up District 5, said he entered the race to help what he called the county’s most pressing issue: recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We must reopen our economy safely and carefully,” he said. “Let’s beat this disease.”

Miller said he would have voted for the Expressway Authority’s route affecting Split Oak.

“I think it makes a lot of sense,” he said, noting the plan was supported by Audubon Florida advocacy director Charles Lee.

Vaya, 44, said she would focus on diversifying the local economy.

An immigrant who became a U.S. citizen in 1996, she owns Tezz Mobile Solutions, a technology company.

“We’re narrow-minded,” she said of the current commission. “We have to start thinking outside the box.”

Vaya said creative thinking is critical now as many businesses are struggling because of the pandemic.

“I’m here [in the commission race] because I believe truly technology is going to play a vital role on how we shape our future in Orange County,” she said.

Vaya said she would have voted against CFX’s route through Split Oak because she believes the public was opposed to it.

The east Orange district includes the Baldwin Park community, Bithlo, Christmas, Maitland and Winter Park.


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